The photos in Figure 2.2 and Plate 2 were taken in Barcelona at Guell Park, an important historical piece of landscape architecture designed by the great master Antonio Gaudi. It has a complex yet abstract spatial quality, with interesting shapes and textures that reflect color and light. On a recent visit there, I met a group of children who were not so taken by Gaudi’s masterwork but were however fascinated by an old crooked tree they found there. They climbed onto it, sat on it, and explored its form; they hid behind it and played chase around it. For the hour of their visit the tree became a centre of magical activity, the focus of the children’s developing narrative play. At last, the whole class sat and ate lunch on and around this tree. The children used it as a ‘bench-table-climber-balance – beam’, a functional invention which emerged simply through their spirited interaction with its strange sensuous shape. This was just an old tree, however, it was located within a context that enabled the children to transform its meaning to meet their particular play needs. The children immediately projected their own imaginative interpretation onto the setting, taking temporary ownership, and
giving it many new uses. One imagines Gaudi would have approved.
If children are the inventors, what then is the designer’s role? Designers are the translators. They are the ones who can give form to something that will meet the diverse imaginative needs of children’s developing personalities. Simply stated, designers translate an imaginative idea into a tangible form, with colours and materiality that can be freely enjoyed by the child.
Clearly, the practical side of creativity, developing imaginative ideas into practical proposals, is something that children do not do very well. In my experience, when children are asked what they would like in their playground, they usually refer to something they have seen elsewhere, or something they know well, though usually requesting a taller, bigger, or faster version of it. Yet children are good at doing new things and therefore I have found it worthwhile to enter into a dialogue with them, not so much a verbal conversation, but rather a dialogue of action (by the child) and our own reflective observation.
Being a designer is in itself a learning process. It therefore mirrors the children’s pattern of play. Often by simply watching children at play an idea forms in the designer’s imagination. An initial sketch for a new play item can then be drawn or modelled. From scale models, a full size functional model can be constructed and children can then test this
model. Observations of children using the functional model provide new information that can be used as the basis for alterations. Then, the improved model is tested again. This goes on again and again until the design meets all the specified criteria.
The product in Figure 2.3 went through a design developmental process as just described. The initial design was inspired by observations of older children who were using traditional slides just as much to climb up, as they were to slide down. The designers made a curving tube-like form that children could slide down like a banister or climb up like a leaning tree trunk. Children were then invited to test the functional model. Observations of their play suggested certain modifications; side handholds were added to use when climbing up, and a rocking effect was designed to mimic the movement of a log rolling in water. This made the activity more challenging yet almost paradoxically increased the safety and usability of the product. The equipment could be installed horizontally and used as a rocking balance beam as well as a slide and a climbing frame. The product’s sensuous quality was important from the start so that children would not be deterred from having full body contact with its surfaces. This is especially significant for children with low levels of physical or visual ability. Overall the product succeeds because it provides diverse play possibilities, meets the needs of children in several age groups and levels
of ability, is safe yet challenging, and is enjoyed by many.